The etiquette of taking your pint back

Real ale can be a beautiful thing — nothing can beat it for its fresh taste and fruitiness. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid — sour and farty. So what do you do?

(a) exercise your rights, take it back and ask for something else

(b) leave the pub, never to return.

I bet most readers of this blog go for (a) whereas most Brits go for (b) or possibly even (c) — continue to drink it coz it’s a vehicle for alcohol on a Friday night.

It took me years to progress to option (a). Why? Well, partly because for the first couple of years of drinking ale, I really wasn’t sure if I had a bad pint, or if that was just how it was supposed to taste. Ale is an acquired taste — more acquired than it ought to be, in fact, because it’s off more than it ought to be.

Also, I’m British, and therefore not one to make a fuss or cause any possible awkwardness.

However, as my ale-drinking has progressed, I now have no problem taking back a dodgy pint. And every time I do it, it’s the same ritual:

Me (choosing a quiet moment if possible, using maximum possible “indirect” language):
Er….I think this might possibly be a bit off.

Bartender (shrugs and/or feigns perplexion): Are you sure?

Me: Yes. Try it yourself.

Bartender: Tastes fine to me.

Me: Well, it definitely tastes off to me.

At this point, the bartender usually shrugs, caves in and asks what you want instead. But they always try to convince you you’re wrong. As if you’ve got over your doubts about your own judgement, and your typical British reserve, just to walk away at this point. Must be something they learn in pub school? Or maybe the perplexion is genuine — maybe not that many people complain?

I’ve come to think you should always take a bad pint back. Firstly, they never refuse to give you a new one, once you’ve gone through the ritual. Secondly, you’re doing them a favour — lots of barstaff don’t like ale, remember, and have no way of knowing if it’s off unless you tell them.  In the case of the chain bar in central London where they hadn’t rinsed the bleach out of the pipes properly before serving me my Pride, maybe I even saved a life by fighting my way to the front of the queue to complain…

Boak

Duesseldorf part five – Frankenheim and further pontification on the nature of Alt

frankenheim2.jpgWe’re almost there. We ended up having Frankenheim twice. First, on Saturday night, after Schumacher and Schloesser, in a restaurant / pub called Brauerei Zum Schiffchen. It’s allegedly Duesseldorf’s oldest, going back to 1628. It doesn’t brew its own now, stocking Frankenheim instead.

Frankenheim was OK – good malt flavour with hints of chocolate, not much bitterness. Sufficiently decent to make us decide to visit their enormous brewery tap, which is about 20 minutes walk from the old town on Wielandstrasse. This place was considerably quieter than the old town pubs, possibly because of the distance, and possibly because it was Sunday afternoon, and even the Duesseldorf party animals have to rest some time. We also committed some kind of faux pas by sitting on a regular’s table. (Why else would they have sat on our table when the pub was two-thirds empty?)

So those were all the alts we got to try. There are a few others that we didn’t try – Diebels, Gatzweiler and Rhenania, to mention a few. Enormous thanks to Ron Pattinson for bothering to put together his Duesseldorf pub guide, as it certainly saved us considerable effort in planning this trip.

So, some conclusions. As a “style”, alt is very varied — the beers we tried had different bitterness levels, different malt flavours, different bodies. It’s certainly more varied than various Koelsches (more on that soon). Our favourites from the trip were Schumacher and Zum Schluessel, but this didn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the others.

We’re looking forward to a return trip, particularly as Duesseldorf is well-placed to get to other beer destinations (Muenster, Cologne, Dortmund). Plus there’s the draw of the “Sticke” — the stronger version, produced and sold on two days a year. See this article on Ron Pattinson’s Duesseldorf pages for more.

But, and this is perhaps the sacreligious part — the alt itself would not be the key draw. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it enormously, but you can get similar beers in the UK.* It’s the atmosphere, the tradition and the liveliness. We’d happily move to Duesseldorf for a year or two to call some of these places our locals.

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*To recreate the Alt effect at home: Get a nice brown bitter that you like, chill it for a couple of hours, and pour it carelessly into a 250ml tumbler so that it eventually settles down to half beer, half head. We tried it — it works. A good alt is very like a cold, super bitter English ale. In our humble opinion, this better recreates the alt experience than buying a tired bottle of boring Diebels from your local specialist beer emporium.

D'oh! Stupid tastebuds…

tongue.jpg Yesterday, the BBC reported that wine drinkers tested by scientists thought a wine tasted better when they were told it cost $45 rather than its actual cost of $5.

I thought this was really interesting.

I really don’t think price has ever affected my judgement — it certainly didn’t in the case of pricey Belgian ‘champagne beer’ DEUS.

But I am happy to admit that beers sometimes seem to taste better or worse to me depending on context, presentation and my own expectations.

I suspect that I might be sucker enough to favourably review, say, UK-brewed Fosters, if it was presented to me in a big German stein and I was told it was traditionally brewed in Augsburg.

I’m a marketing man’s dream.

Bailey

Are you an alcoholic?

allourbeers.jpgWell, that depends what you read and whose questionnaire you do.

This post started as a bit of a joke. A friend of mine who lives in the States was telling me about a questionnaire her students have to do about alcohol use which would have classified most Brits as alcoholics. Ha ha, we all said. And I thought it might be fun to post a crazy puritanical questionnaire compared with a “more sensible” one.

However, as I started going through various questionnaires I found online I found out that there was no particular difference between American and international questionnaires, and also that I drink too much according to most websites, and may be an alcoholic according to others.

In fact, the one questionnaire that puts me in the clear is American website Alcoholscreening.org. Although it thinks that I drink more than the average (American) woman, I’m below the levels typically associated with alcoholism. Other questionnaires are not so kind, and I’ve been told I’m causing myself health problems and should see a specialist immediately.

So should I worry? Part of the problem with these questionaires is that they’re often designed so that any negative answer indicates that you may have a problem. The Alcoholics Anonymous one is a good example. Basically, if you score yes to any of them, you MAY be an alcoholic. Apparently, I’m definitely an alcoholic, because I’ve ticked three; yes, I have (once) lost my memory, I have drunk alone once or twice, and I have felt remorse after drinking. Not because I’ve done (or failed to do) anything significant after drinking, but because I get awful hangovers and I’m the kind of puritan that regrets wasting time being ill.

In fact, guilt and remorse are a recurring theme in these questionaires. Admitting to feeling guilty about drinking and wanting to cut down occasionally are seen as indicators of potential alcoholism, which I find a bit weird. It’s as if just by doing the questionnaire you’re admitting you have a problem. That combined with the fact that “denial” is a key indicator is enough to condemn anybody!

You may say that Alcoholics Anonymous has a vested interest in making people believe they are alcoholics. So I looked for some neutral authorities. The World Health Organisation has several diagnostic tools, which appear in various forms on various websites. Here’s the version I did. I actually thought it was pretty good, as it goes through the amount you drink, but then seeks to analyse whether this is a problem or not. My result? I don’t have any alcohol related problems at the moment, but;

“Alcohol is probably slightly too important in your life and you may have the earliest signs of a developing alcohol dependency.”

Well, brewing is my hobby and I have a beer-blog, so yes, alcohol is important in my life. Or rather, beer is. That leads me onto another point. One of my personal indicators has always been that if there isn’t any nice beer, I tend not to drink at all. No shite lager, no vodka and tonic — I stick to the softies and spare the liver. If someone told me I could never drink beer again, I’d be gutted. If they told me I could never drink beer, but could drink other alcohol, this would not be a consolation. Oh, there goes the denial again.

Shouldn’t there be some recognition of these types of factors, rather than straight number crunching? Well, yes. If you look up technical definitions of alcoholism, they focus very much on your behaviour, not how much you drink. The Journal of the American Medical Association defines alcoholism as;

“a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations…It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial”

To finish with, I want to heartily recommend a brilliant article in the Observer, via Guardian Online (by Euan Ferguson) from earlier this month. As well as saying extremely sensible things about the current panic in the UK about binge-drinking, it has some “from the heart” guidance from an alcoholic as to how you really know. The difference between drink as a treat, and drink as a necessity. The importance of “the first drink of the day” to the alcoholic. The need to listen to the mornings, not government guidelines. There are just so many quotes that I want to reproduce here, as I feel it is bang-on about so many things.

“The great danger, surely, is that by telling everyone they drink too much (when, as we have seen, we have been following spurious guidelines for decades) we are left bereft of proper guidance. The tactics leave us more confused than ever. When are we drinking too much? Should I feel guilty? What’s wrong with a couple of glasses? Am I an alcoholic? Is there a difference? Oh yes. Yes, there is still a difference, between those who enjoy a drink and those who tip into hell. Our studies today show the difference, and it is, I would argue, supremely irresponsible for a government minister to attempt to blur the scare-lines.”

I can’t speak for how accurately he describes the life of the alcoholic (fortunately) but I can say that this article is also the best analysis of British drinking culture I’ve ever read.  Do go and read it.

Boak

What’s in a name?

There’s a common stereotype that real ales have silly names. You can see this stereotype in action in Viz‘s “Real Ale Twats” sketches kindly uploaded by Stonch back in September.

Actually, this isn’t as true today as it used to be — I was looking through a couple of festival programmes recently, and the truly daft names were few and far between.

But look hard enough and you can still find the Old StoatWobblers, Tiddly Vicars, and the famous Piddle in the Wind. You can groan at terrible puns like “Santa’s Claws”, and “Smoking – then they bandit”. Then there are the “ha-ha, aren’t we being politically incorrect” names such as “Dry hopped Naked Ladies” and “Top Totty”, usually with a highly amusing pump clip too. Very seaside postcard.

Why do brewers go to all that effort to produce what might be a good brew and then cheapen it with a lousy name? I’ve thought of three possible reasons;

  1. they think it appeals to the sense of humour of the average real ale fan
  2. it’s a way of catching the eye at a beer festival, when there are hundreds of others to choose from
  3. actually, the beer isn’t very good, but they’re hoping to sell it on its novelty value.

There might be something in (1) but it’s based on a generalisation which doesn’t hold true. I’m sure I’m not the only real ale fan to find silly names a bit tacky and an insult to my sense of humour. So, by extension, (2) doesn’t work for me either. It’s not that I won’t drink a beer such as “Cunning Stunt” because of the name, but I’m more likely to pick something with a sensible name and label, that suggests quality and integrity. This is because I’ve now started to believe in option (3) and associate stupid names with amateur gimmicks, and thus don’t expect the beer to be any good.

Incidentally, while “researching” this, I found an old article (from August 2003) on the subject. It makes pretty much the same points as above:

‘There are too many rather suggestive names in real ale, which I don’t think does the industry much good,” said Steve Reynolds, marketing director at Springhead brewery.

Do these silly, sexist or crude names actually appeal to *anyone*? Or am I just a prudish, po-faced stormtrooper of political correctness…?

N.B. I’ve never had any of the beers mentioned above — they might taste great!

Boak